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Portalatin v. Blatt

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

October 25, 2017

IWONA PORTALATIN, Plaintiff,
v.
BLATT, HASENMILLER, LEIBSKER & MOORE, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Iwona Portalatin sued Blatt, Hasenmiller, Leibsker & Moore, LLC, a law firm, and Midland Funding, LLC, alleging they violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692i(a). Blatt filed a debt collection suit on Midland's behalf against Portalatin in the Circuit Court of Cook County's First Municipal District-whose courthouse is in downtown Chicago-rather than in the court's Fourth Municipal District, in which Portalatin resided. Portalatin settled with Midland.

         The Court entered summary judgment in favor of Portalatin against Blatt on the issue of liability, overruling Blatt's contention that its violation of the FDCPA was based on a "bona fide error" due to its reliance on legal precedent. Portalatin v. Blatt, Hasenmiller, Leibsker & Moore, LLC, 125 F.Supp.3d 810 (N.D. Ill. 2015). The Court declined to stay the case pending the Seventh Circuit's en banc consideration of a case called Oliva that also involved Blatt and the same bona fide error issue, so the case proceeded to a jury trial on damages in November 2015.

         At trial, Portalatin sought only statutory damages, asking the jury to award the statutory maximum of $1, 000. Blatt argued that the jury should award no damages. The jury awarded Portalatin $200. The Court entered judgment in Portalatin's favor and denied Blatt's post-trial motions in February 2016. See Portalatin v. Blatt, Hasenmiller, Leibsker & Moore, LLC, No. 14 C 8271, 2016 WL 693208 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 20, 2016). Blatt filed a notice of appeal in March 2016. The Seventh Circuit stayed the appeal pending resolution of Oliva, and this Court similarly stayed the filing of Portalatin's fee petition.

         In July of this year, the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, ruled against Blatt on the bona fide error issue. Oliva v. Blatt, Hasenmiller, Leibsker & Moore, LLC, 864 F.3d 492 (7th Cir. 2017). This Court then lifted the stay in the present case, and Portalatin has filed a petition for attorney's fees and expenses, which the Court considers in this decision.

         Discussion

         There is no question that Portalatin is a prevailing party entitled to a fee award under 15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)(3). Portalatin won the case. The Court entered summary judgment in her favor against Blatt on the issue of liability, and a jury awarded her statutory damages, albeit less than what she requested.

         Attorney's fees under the FDCPA are determined in the same way as under other federal fee-shifting statutes, namely, by multiplying a reasonable hourly rate for the attorney's services by the number of hours reasonably expended. See Gastineau v. Wright, 592 F.3d 747, 748 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-37 (1983)). "If necessary, [a] district court has the flexibility to adjust that figure to reflect various factors including the complexity of the legal issues involved, the degree of success obtained, and the public interest advanced by the litigation." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Portalatin had three attorneys work on the case during the time it was pending in this Court. The laboring oar was carried by Mohammed Badwan of Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd. Ross Zambon, who is of counsel to Sulaiman Law Group, also performed work on the case. Finally, Nick Wooten, an Arkansas-based attorney, came into the case once it was set for trial and served as lead trial counsel.

         Portalatin seeks to recover for 161.5 hours of Badwan's time at a rate of $375 per hour. She seeks to recover for 64.5 hours of Wooten's time at a rate of $550 per hour; Wooten put in another 20 hours on the case for which Portalatin does not seek to recover fees. Finally, Zambon worked 29.4 hours and claims an hourly rate of $425, but Portalatin has exercised "billing judgment, " Spegon v. Catholic Bishop of Chi., 175 F.3d 544, 552 (7th Cir. 1999), and does not seek to recover for Zambon's time.

         The total award that Portalatin requests is $96, 037.50, plus costs of $772.95. Blatt does not object to the requested cost award but argues that the requested attorney's fees are excessive. The Court notes that records produced by Blatt at the Court's direction during the process of briefing the petition reflect that Blatt's counsel billed it for 173.9 hours at rates ranging from $350 per hour to $550 per hour, for a total of $88, 078.

         1. Hourly rates

         Portalatin has the burden of persuasion on whether the requested hourly rates are reasonable. Hensley, 461 U.S. at 437. The Court begins with the proposed $375 hourly rate for Badwan. Badwan has been practicing law since 2009. He has had fees approved in bankruptcy litigation at a higher rate ($425). Blatt has offered no contrary evidence. The Court also notes that Blatt's counsel billed out at $350 per hour two "junior associates" who appear to have somewhat less practice experience than Badwan. In addition, the Court recently approved a $375 rate in a consumer-law case for an attorney with a similar level of experience, finding that rate to be properly supported with reference to rates commonly charged in this area under similar circumstances. See Stocksman v. Global Credit and Collection Corp., No. 14 C 6862, 2015 WL 4999851, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 21, 2015); Kasalo v. Trident Asset Mgmt., LLC, No. 12 C 2900, 2015 WL 2097605, at *3 (N.D. Ill. May 3, 2015). For these reasons, the Court finds that Portalatin has established that Badwan's requested rate of $375 is reasonable.

         Wooten has been practicing law since 1997. He seeks an hourly rate of $550. His reasonable rate is appropriately higher than Badwan's given his greater level of practice experience. But Wooten has done next to nothing to support his requested rate. He cites no billed rates for hourly-rate-paying clients and no fee awards in other cases. His only evidence of other specific hourly rates consists of somewhat vague and unsupported references to rates charged by opposing counsel in other cases. This is less than persuasive given (among other things) the absence of supporting detail. To be sure, Wooten's requested rate is the same charged by lead defense counsel David Hartsell for the latter part of this litigation-around the same period when Wooten was involved-and, based on review of information on Hartsell's law firm's website, he appears to have approximately the same amount of practice experience as Wooten. But that is a rather thin reed on which to base an hourly rate. Wooten also cites the so- called "Laffey Matrix, " but its usefulness in determining reasonable market rates-at least for Chicago-is suspect. See Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 664 F.3d 632, 649-51 (7th Cir. 2011). This Court has declined to give it significant weight in other cases, see, e.g., Wells v. City of Chicago, 925 F.Supp.2d 1036, 1040 (N.D. Ill. 2013), and ...


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